MINOT, N.D. — In North Dakota, extraterritorial zoning is a policy that allows city governments to regulate people and property who aren't actually in those cities.
This often irks the people living in those zones who get stuck paying fees and following policies set by people they can't vote for. And why shouldn't it irk them? The whole "consent of the governed" thing is a foundational principle of the American system of government.
Unfortunately, these people often find themselves in a twilight zone in state politics. Most of us don't live in ET zones, so it's hard to build a political movement around a problem most don't have, and the city governments have a lot of lobbyists and staff who have been working to keep the status quo, as unfair as it is.
This issue got on the Legislature's radar in 2019 thanks to an egregious example of abuse from the City of Minot, which had been doubling the price of building permits for people in the ET zone.
Nothing like sticking it to people who have no say in city elections, right? When the Legislature acted to end this practice, Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma — who, I must say, might be in the running for worst elected official in North Dakota — complained about this supposed affront to "local control."
“We’re deeply disappointed by the sole action of Rep. Dan Ruby for making this local control matter a State issue,” he told the news media after Gov. Doug Burgum signed legislation passed by majorities in both legislative chambers (Ruby was the bill sponsor).
Not surprisingly, Sipma and other city leaders are hypocritically aghast at the idea that people who don't live in their cities could vote for city leadership, though they're still fine with city governments regulating those people.
Kading's bill passed the House narrowly and is now before the Senate
"The individuals in these ET zones do not get to vote for the elected officials who get to regulate them when it comes to zoning," he said during a recent hearing on the proposal. "In my opinion, it's completely unfair, and we should not allow our citizens in rural North Dakota to be regulated by those within a city without having proper representation."
Kading is right; it's not fair.
But then, in this instance, the city leaders are right too. Either you're the citizen of a city, or you're not, and if you're not a citizen, you shouldn't be voting in city elections any more than city leaders should be governing people and property, not in the city.
Kading's bill will likely fail in the Senate - it got a unanimous "do not pass" recommendation from the Political Subdivisions Committee - and that's probably for the best, but the friction over this issue isn't going away.
The solution is to be rid of extraterritorial zoning.
City governments will tell you it's needed to find regulatory harmony between in-city communities and those who live just over the jurisdictional boundaries. "It allows for the city to protect areas it will grow into by ensuring that only compatible development is built," Rachel Laqua, a planner for the City of Williston, told the Senate committee.
While that's a worthy goal, ET zones are an offensive way to go about achieving them.
People in ET zones already have political representation in the form of county commissions and township boards. If a city government wants to coordinate planning with the residents surrounding it, they can coordinate with the elected officials those people have already chosen.
City officials might tell you this is already happening, and to the extent that's true, then why do we still need ET zones?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.